Shortly after Continental Airlines pilot Newton Dickson complained about the same lack of training and pilot fatigue that led to the fiery crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y., he was referred to Dr. Michael Berry, now head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s medical certification office, who diagnosed him with epilepsy and medically grounded him. Dickson has not flown since.
Now a security officer for the Transportation Security Administration at the same Houston airport he was based as a pilot, Dickson appeared before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last month to appeal an administrative law judge’s ruling upholding the permanent revocation of his pilot’s license even though there is no clinical evidence he ever had epilepsy.
To make such a ruling, the judge had to ignore the testimony of Dr. Brian Loftus, a Houston neurologist and specialist in seizure disorders, who said Dickson had no clinical symptoms of epilepsy. An EEG, a neurological workup, medical transcripts and affidavits from witnesses — including one from the same pilot Dickson reported for almost overshooting a runway — all basically said the same thing, according to court documents.
Berry labeling him an epileptic cost Dickson his pilot’s license, his house, $200,000 in ongoing legal fees and about $1.2 million in lost earnings. And Dickson said the Air Line Pilots Association union, then headed by current FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, did "nothing at all" to defend him.
Dickson is not the only one.
In the same federal courthouse where Dickson’s appeal was being heard, another judge was considering a lawsuit filed against the union by former Navy "Top Gun" Field McConnell, who claims he was forced out of his job at Northwest Airlines for reporting illegal aircraft modifications, as he was required to do under federal law. "If an airline pilot complains about safety, he or she will be fired or worse, diagnosed with a medical condition that never existed," Dickson told me.
Indeed, pilots I have talked to from Continental, Delta, United, Northwest and other airlines — some with military flying experience in addition to tens of thousands of hours of cockpit time — said they were medically grounded after speaking up about problems that directly affected the safety of their passengers and crew members.
But a growing number of them are fighting back in federal court, including a Massachusetts pilot who charges that his medical records were fraudulently doctored after he complained about being forced to fly a plane with a defective jet engine. The FAA is currently conducting a long-overdue audit of his case.
Curiously, all of the pilots say the union did not fight for them or intervene in any way on their behalf when they lost their jobs. And the federal aviation regulatory agency did not launch an investigation into why experienced pilots were being forced out of the cockpit soon after filing federally mandated safety reports.
This pattern of medical groundings should be of grave concern to the flying public. So should the regulatory agency’s lack of interest in finding out why. After all, the FAA’s job is to ground aircraft that do not meet federal flight standards while protecting those who warn that standards are being ignored.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Washington Examiner’s local opinion editor.